Imagination and three-act lessons

Yesterday I had a good time at a pro-D workshop on Imaginative Education, led by one of the research profs from the Imaginative Education Research Group. I thought I ought to write it up because there’s a lot of good overlap between work I’ve seen by other math teachers online, and some cross-pollination of ideas might be helpful for everyone.

The tl;dr version of imaginative ed: think about students as imaginative people and hook their imagination using tools that fit the way their imaginations work at their age level.

The specifics are pretty helpful, separating layers of how we perceive the world roughly in parallel to how language use develops – going from purely sensory, to oral storytelling and mythic forms, and then onto “romantic” (ie. heroic) structures as reading develops.  A more complete introduction is found here, and actually has a wider scope than what we covered yesterday (we didn’t talk about “philosophic” or “ironic” use).

One bit that was emphasized is how none of this was meant to detract from content, or replace meaningful learning with “finger-painting”.  Rather it’s meant to frame students’ learning in a context where they’re using their imaginations and emotionally engaged.

An example of this is to look for mythic qualities and “binary opposites” in what you’re teaching and emphasize those in how you describe the bit-of-content to students.  Obvious ones are good/evil, survival/death, etc, but there was a long list to draw from.  One example presented was describing the air to primary students and choosing to emphasize “empty / full” opposites – the air appears empty, but isn’t it fascinating how if we shone a flashlight in it we’d see all kinds of dust?  And did you know that dust is 80% dead skin cells, so breathe it in and get to know your neighbours a little better!  (EWWWW) etc.

Later as students are more in a “romantic” mindset, emphasizing heroic qualities in what you’re presenting is the key concept, but again the focus is using an emotional, imaginative hook to kick students’ imaginations into gear.

One obvious parallel I saw here was the three-act lesson format that Dan Meyer is promoting.  At first the mental connection was just the overlap of talk about story and narrative, but I started seeing something deeper.  Dan’s first act is about creating a tension that the student wants to see resolved, following the traditional three-act structure for narrative.  In a similar way, a three-act lesson engages students curiosity with a natural question – and importantly, it encourages them to “make a guess” as to how it plays out.

How does someone make a guess?  They have to imagine what happens next.

Seems to me that those interested in applying IE to math would do well to see what Dan Meyer’s up to.  And those looking for some big-idea theory to situate three-act lessons in, or further tools for creating a good first act, or inspired by three-acts but working outside of math/science, might want to check out the resources from the IERG.

One thought on “Imagination and three-act lessons

  1. Hi Josh – love the blog. Reminds me of Jane McGonigal mixing learning and game design.
    I’ve followed you and would love if you’d follow me back at

    Its all about new ways of learning!

    Thank you,
    Bernard Carbajo.

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